Sunday Notes: Collin McHugh and Josh Hader Take Their Mechanics Seriously

Collin McHugh wasn’t consumed with worry, but he was concerned. The Astros right-hander had shoulder/biceps tendinitis in the spring, and then his elbow tightened up during a rehab outing in April. Tests didn’t raise any red flags, but it’s hard not to ponder worst-case scenarios when your livelihood is at risk.

Tendinitis is mostly an inconvenience. Tightness can be a prelude to surgery.

“I wouldn’t say it was scary, but I guess you do get a little bit nervous,” admitted McHugh. “Tommy John is so prevalent that I think everyone thinks about that when they feel some tenderness. I’d never had an elbow problem in my life.”

The relationship between his shoulder and elbow maladies was talked about “ad nauseam,” and while McHugh isn’t sure — “everything is so minuscule in your delivery” — he assumes the latter was related to effort level and trying to come back too soon. Opting for caution over expediency, the Astros subsequently kept him on the shelf until July.

My conversation with McHugh turned to mechanics, and to how many feel that continual max-effort makes a pitcher prone to elbow issues more than does increased velocity.

“I don’t know how much of that is anecdotal and how much is scientific,” responded the righty. “I read (Jeff Passan’s) book The Arm earlier in the year and thought that it made some good points both ways. Strommy, our pitching coach, was talking to me about it so I got it in spring training. I read through it pretty quickly. It was a pretty interesting read.

“I’ve never been a real max-effort guy — I can always pitch pretty comfortably between 90 and 95 percent — but any time you have some issues with your elbow, you have to take it seriously.”

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When I talked to Milwaukee Brewers rookie Josh Hader in September, he told me that he’s “max effort all the time.” Despite having an above-average fastball and a deceptive delivery — Chris Sale comps have been commonplace — he’s not overly concerned about injury risk.

“I’ve done (bio-mechanical assessments), where they put a set of sensors on you,” said the promising young southpaw. “You want to make sure that your arm is taking on as little stress as it can when you’re throwing each pitch. Having everything working fluidly is going to help a lot. That’s the biggest thing, making sure that everything is in sync.”

Hader has cleaned up his delivery since entering pro ball five years ago — “I’ve made minor adjustments to improve my flow and momentum” — but he’s also remained frustratingly deceptive. He knows it’s one of his biggest assets.

“Obviously, the least amount of time a batter has to pick up the ball out of my hand, the better,” said Hader. “There are definitely positives to my mechanics.”

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Pitching coaches currently seeking employment include Neil Allen, Chris Bosio, Doug Brocail, Rich Dubee, Dave Eiland, Jim Hickey, Derek Lilliquist, Mike Maddux, Bob McClure, Dan Warthen, Carl Willis, and Curt Young.

If he’d like to move back into that role, John Farrell is also available. And then there is Dave Righetti, who may prefer to remain a pitching coach, rather than stay in San Francisco in a different capacity.

Have there ever been this many quality pitching coaches on the open market?

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Dave Hansen won’t be returning as Angels’ hitting coach next season. The former Dodgers’ pinch-hitting specialist — and amateur guitar virtuoso — was fired by the AL West team earlier this month.

He shouldn’t be unemployed long, and whoever hires him will be bringing on board a believer in rhythm and timing.

“I’ve never battled with the rhythm part, or how to teach it,” Hansen told me this summer. “Coming from a music background, I’ve always worked in time, and for me teaching the distance between, and how to absorb speeds, is all clicks. I teach on more of a rhythmic basis.

“Hitting is reactionary. We’re offense, but we’re reactionary, so while we talk about being aggressive, there’s still discipline involved. It’s a little bit more tactical, so you have to start from a constant and that’s usually a rhythm you’re consistent with. Good hitters don’t really ever come out of their swing.”

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Marwin Gonzalez was a pleasant surprise for the Houston Astros this year. Along with providing primo versatility — that part was expected — the 28-year-old switch-hitter slashed 303/.377/.530 and banged out 23 home runs.

“It was an amazing season,” Gonzalez told me following Game 162. “I wasn’t expecting to be this good. I want to thank God; everything went well. I’m happy for myself, and obviously for the team.”

Coming into the campaign, Gonzalez was a career .257/.298/.389 hitter with 37 home runs in 1,638 plate appearances. What was behind his surprising-even-to-him breakout?

“I think it was all the work I put in during the offseason,” rationalized Gonzalez, who was originally taught to hit by his father, a former scout. “I put a little weight on my body and I watched a lot of video. I watched to see how I’d been working my at bats in the past. I looked at what pitchers were throwing me, and what pitches I was swinging at.”

The one-time Chicago Cubs farmhand — Houston acquired him during the Rule-5 draft in 2011 — explained that his swing and setup are essentially the same. What’s changed is his “pre-pitch,” as he’s now “thinking more; I’m going up to the plate with a plan and trying to execute it.”

Where did the increased power come from?

“From everything I’m saying,” explained Gonzalez. “That will help you swing at better pitches, and if you swing at better pitches you’re going to make better contact. That’s why the home runs came this year.”

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Christian Vazquez is another player who made a big step forward as a hitter in 2017. Coming into the year, the Red Sox catcher had a .601 OPS in 385 career big-league plate appearances, and this season he came to the dish 345 times and slashed .290/.330/.404.

His developmental strides span multiple seasons.

“I’ve worked hard to improve longterm, and experience — playing every day over the years — helps everybody get better,” explained Vazquez. “I’ve lowered my hands more, and last year I eliminated the leg kick. Every year you change a little bit.”

The lowering of hands, accompanied by a more-compact swing, happened five years ago. Vazquez made those adjustments following a 2011 season where he hit 18 home runs, but also fanned 84 times in fewer than 400 at bats. Those numbers came in low-A, and the defense-first backstop was going to have to make more contact if he hoped to handle higher-quality pitching.

“It was a great year, but I knew that my game isn’t 18 bombs,” said Vazquez. “I’d rather hit .300 than hit .200 with 30 bombs. I try to let the ball travel and hit it to right field. That’s my game.”

The decision to shorten up was mostly his own. Red Sox assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez was the organization’s minor league hitting coordinator at the time, and he told me that Vazquez recognized that “trying to create (power) is when he gets in trouble; when he takes what they give him and stays in the big part of the field is when he’s good.”

As for the more-recent adjustment, Rodriguez explained that taking away the leg kick “got rid of a lot of movement” and has Vazquez “more under control so he can see the ball better.”

That’s exactly what Vazquez is focusing on.

“Hitting is so hard, man,” Vazquez told me. “You need to concentrate on one thing — see it and hit it. I think that’s the key.”

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Prior to ALCS Game 5, I asked both managers about the value of advance scouting. Here is how they responded:

Joe Girardi: “I think you always gain from advance scouting. They watch clubs for a long time. You start evaluating in late August, early September — who we could possibly see — so you’ve got to send (scouts) out everywhere.

“There are guys that went for weeks and weeks at a time and then maybe it came that we didn’t even see that team. Our guys do a tremendous job. They spend a ton of time out on the road and we applaud them for it. They’re following teams for three and four weeks, and it helps.”

A.J. Hinch: “There are no secrets in the game, anywhere. You can find competitive advantages in a lot of different ways, and we have our internal advance scouting process. We have external, as well, out in the field watching guys.

“We over-scrutinize every aspect of the game and every aspect of the team, and try to have the match-ups. In some ways I think that’s good, because there is no too-much-information mentality. But on the flip side, you can get a little bit of paralysis by analysis if you’re not careful. You’ve got to compete, play the game and let guys attack hitters with their strengths.

“But we absolutely believe in it. It’s in my background and it’s sprinkled throughout the organization. You have to have people in the field, and people behind the scenes, giving you information to make good decisions.”

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Remember the play that ended this year’s ALDS, the one where Gary Sanchez dropped the third strike and Austin Jackson stood in the batter’s box rather than run to first base? According to an MLB rules expert, the play could have created controversy. Had the home plate umpire not already called Jackson out — he did that, right? — Sanchez putting the ball in his back pocket would have resulted in a dead ball, with all runners getting two bases. In other words, Jose Ramirez would have scored, Jackson would have been on second, and the Indians would have brought the tying run to the plate.

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LCS NOTES

The Astros postseason roster includes four players — Jose Altuve, Marwin Gonzalez, Dallas Keuchel, and Brad Peacock — who were on the 2013 Houston squad that went 51-111.

The Yankees have rallied from an 0-2 deficit to win a seven-game postseason series four times. They did so against the Dodgers in 1956 and 1978, and against the Braves in 1958 and 1996.

Jake Arrieta got his fifth postseason win on Wednesday, tying him with Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown for the most in Cubs franchise history.

Clayton Kershaw got his sixth postseason win on Thursday, tying him with Burt Hooton for the most in Dodgers franchise history.

Justin Verlander has the most postseason wins among active pitchers, with 11. CC Sabathia is second, with 10.

Monday marked the 59th time the Yankees have scored eight-or-more runs in a postseason game, which is the most of any team. The St. Louis Cardinals are second with 30 eight-run games in the postseason.

Yusiel Puig is slashing .414/.514/.655 in the postseason. Justin Turner is slashing .387/.500/.677.

In ALCS Game 4, Gary Sánchez (24 years, 319 days) became the youngest Yankee with a go-ahead hit in the eighth inning or later of a postseason game since 1962 when Tom Tresh (24 years, 20 days) hit a tie- breaking three-run HR off of San Francisco’s Jack Sanford in the bottom of the eighth of World Series Game 5.

Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers, Jr. combined to throw 108 pitches in ALCS Game 7. Sixty-five of them were curveballs.

The Houston Astros will be the first franchise to represent both the American League and the National League in the World Series. Pre-1900, Brooklyn and St. Louis both represented the American Association and the National league.

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Following his ALCS Game 4 performance — one earned run and one hit allowed in five-and-a-third innings — Yankees right-hander Sonny Gray explained his usual means of effectiveness this way:

Making my fastball move both ways. When I’m going well, that’s something that’s always been good for me, the hitters not knowing which way the ball is going to go. Just keeping them off balance as much as possible.

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The Minnesota Twins’ adding Baseball America’s editor-in-chief John Manuel to their pro scouting staff — he’s scheduled to start in November —is both surprising and about-time smart. Teams have hired writers to scouting positions before — BA alum Chris Kline is a notable — and few know the prospect world better. So while the news came out of the blue, bringing Manuel on board qualifies as a potential coup for Falvey-Levine and Co.

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Three years ago in this space I wrote about an annual event that takes place in my hometown of Trenary, Michigan. The Potato Auction began in 1954, prompted by a bar bet on who would win that year’s World Series, and it’s happening again today. If you’re interested in the particulars, you can read my six-paragraphs description here. If not, just know that a wheelbarrow full of produce will be pushed to raise money for a Little League team, and copious amounts of alcohol will be consumed,.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At MLB.com, Tigers beat writer Jason Beck wrote about how the team is building up both their scouting and analytics departments. Vice President of player personnel Scott Bream is quoted as saying, “The last thing we would want our scouts doing is basing their reports on what they’re getting off of FanGraphs.”

A story from last summer worth revisiting: Billy Witz of The New York Times profiled Michael Fishman and the Yankees analytics department.

At The Sun-Sentinel, Tim Healey profiled the Miami Marlins’ new vice president of player development and scouting Gary Denbo, whose zigzag baseball career has included more zigs and zags than most.

Why do baseball managers wear uniforms? Matt Soniak looked into the question at Mental Floss.

Bob Rogacki of Bless You Boys shared his thoughts on a recent realignment idea, and offered one of his own.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Toronto’s Ryan Goins went 48-for-241 (.199) this year with no one on base. He went 33-for-100 with runners in scoring position, and 10-for-14 with the bases loaded.

As the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo pointed out in his always-informative notes column last Sunday, four pitchers allowed 20-plus homers and 20-plus stolen bases this year: Julio Teheran (31 HR/26 SB), Yu Darvish (27 HR/20 SB), Jason Hammel (26 HR/20 SB), and Mike Pelfrey (25 HR/26 SB).

Counting the postseason, the Cubs and Dodgers have played 2,098 times. Los Angeles (nee Brooklyn) leads the all-time series 1,057 to 1,041.

Yankees batters 25-and-younger combined to hit 103 home runs in the regular season, the most in franchise history. The 1940 and 1956 teams got 86 each from their not-yet-26 set.

On this date in 1972, the Oakland A’s took Game 7 of the World Series with a 3-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds. Catfish Hunter, who went 21-7 during the regular season, got the win in relief.

On October 21, 1980, the Phillies won the World Series for the first time in franchise history. The team originally known as the Quakers joined the National League in 1883.

In the 1910 World Series, Philadelphia A’s right-hander Jack Coombs had complete-game wins on October 18, October 20, and October 23.

All five games of the 1905 World Series between the New York Giants and the Philadelphia A’s were complete-game shutouts. Giants’ righty Christy Mathewson threw three of them.

Harry Gumbert pitched for four different teams from 1935-1950. “Gunboat” saw action in three World Series, where he was shelled for 13 runs in four innings.

On October 23, 1993, Toronto’s Joe Carter touched them all.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Collin McHugh and Josh Hader Take Their Mechanics Seriously by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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The Astros postseason roster includes four players — Jose Altuve, Marwin Gonzalez, Dallas Keuchel, and Brad Peacock — who were on the 2013 Houston squad that went 51-111.

Just for fun, I looked at their WAR totals.

This year, Altuve (7.5), Gonzales (4.1), Keuchel (2.5), and Peacock (3.0) combined for 17.1 WAR, or 32% of their team’s 53.8 WAR total.

In 2013, Altuve (0.7), Gonzales (-0.4), Keuchel (1.1), and Peacock (0.1) combined for 1.5 WAR, or 50% of the Disastros hilarious 3.0 WAR total. (Fun fact: they were only the 2nd-worst team that year. Guess — or try to remember — who kept them out of the cellar.)

I guess from that you could argue Altuve was more valuable to his team in 2013 than he was this year, when he’s the (or at least a) leading candidate for AL MVP.